A fatal explosion and fire Tuesday morning at a Winnipeg homeless camp is shining a light on the dangers those experiencing homelessness are going through as the city battles a brutal cold snap as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement following the incident, which left one person dead near the Disraeli Freeway, End Homelessness Winnipeg called for the creation of much-needed housing to move to the top of officials’ priority lists.
The organization’s Lucille Bruce told 680 CJOB that people without homes in the city are facing a “triple whammy” of danger, as COVID-19 has been keeping many away from shelters, and the extreme weather is leading people in the encampments to set fires to stay warm.
“They choose not to go to emergency shelters to spend the overnight due to cold weather, so they end up setting up tents in the encampment area, and that leads to another risk, of course, and that’s with the extreme cold weather,” said Bruce.
“If we want to address the issue of people living unsheltered, we know the only option is to create low-barrier housing… so people can be in their own homes, safe, warm, during extreme cold weather and safe during this pandemic.
“We need to build low-barrier housing — offer people different types of housing based on their needs and their issues they’re experiencing.”
The City of Winnipeg attributed Tuesday’s fatal blaze to aerosols igniting, and said no one was injured aside from the person who was killed.
Anti-poverty advocate Harrison Powder of the Urban Warrior Alliance told Global News there was always a fear that something like this could happen under the current conditions.
“Whenever there’s cold and in the winter, fire is always a major concern, but people need fires,” said Powder.
“Every night they risk their lives by lighting a fire, whether it’s a candle, a propane tank, whatever it is, they have to stay warm.”
One way to keep homeless encampments safe from incidents like Tuesday’s explosion could be with the help of volunteer fire-keepers maintaining fires and keeping camps safe.
EJ Fontaine and Eva Fontaine-Wilson have been working with dozens of volunteers from other local Indigenous organizations to create a “community caring camp” near Thunderbird House, and told Global News they were inspired after seeing homeless people struggling with the weather in Winnipeg.
Teepees and a prospector tent have been set up at the site, and the couple’s call for volunteers and food donations has been a bit of a success so far.
“We were in our comfortable home with a warm roof overhead and just thinking about our homeless community,” said Fontaine-Wilson.
“Once we had an outpour of community coming out to show support and love, we decided to call it the community caring camp. It’s been incredible how people as far as Winkler and Tyndall and my home community of Peguis that have come far and near to feed and provide wood for the camp to keep people warm.”
Her husband said volunteers are working hard to make sure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen with the essential fires at the site.
“We have volunteers that keep the fires going 24/7 and we make sure that we have fire extinguishers in the teepee,” he said.
“We also have a good relationship with the fire department… They’ve been very helpful to us to make sure we’re doing things that are safe.
“Safety is a number one priority there.”
Fontaine said volunteers are also tasked with cleaning up around the fire to make sure there’s no debris that can light up, and the firepit has a cover for extra safety.
Winnipeg Mayor, Brian Bowman, commencing a press conference Wednesday addressing the incident.
“Firstly, I want to just express our community’s deepest condolences regarding the loss of life, one of our residents, due to a fire at one of our homeless encampments, which we learned about yesterday,” Bowman said. “For family, friends, all those affected I just want to offer our deepest condolences.”
Manitoba’s largest city’s mayor noting attending to the needs of unsheltered and homeless Winnipeggers is not a new issue for the province or city.
“It’s something that we continue to look to see what we can do as a community, and as a level of government to offer some assistance, whether it’s supporting End Homelessness Winnipeg, or some of the other interim measures on our path to more affordable affordable and social housing in the province and of course in the city,” Bowman said. “With respect to the fact that we have been experiencing extreme cold weather in the middle of a global pandemic is one of the reasons why I wrote to the Premier last Tuesday, requesting an urgent meeting.”
Bowman saying he has yet to hear back directly from Premier Brian Pallister, but did hear back Wednesday from the Minister of Families, Rochelle Squires.
“We of course had offered to work with the province of Manitoba, the level of government responsible for mental health addictions, social services, housing – and notably Manitoba housing,” Bowman said. “We had offered spaces and an ability to urgently partner with the province of Manitoba. Unfortunately, the province has declined to staff empty city facilities that the City of Winnipeg has offered as a daytime warming shelters. Instead, the Minister has recommended that the city reach out to community agencies and faith based organizations for training of city staff instead.”
Bowman says Minister Squires has offered to meet to discuss how the provincial government can begin working to add more warming centers in the city of Winnipeg.